Pembina Trails teachers get pay bump, even though division 'hobbled by arbitrary cutbacks': arbitrator
Arbitration board sympathetic to Winnipeg division's financial strain, but says inability to pay not an excuse
The Manitoba government's push to freeze the wages of public-sector employees has taken another blow, after an arbitration board ruled teachers with Pembina Trails School Division should get a pay bump.
Teachers in the south Winnipeg division are in line for pay increases dating back to 2018, the arbitration board ruled in a decision this week.
The new four-year collective agreement will boost teachers' salaries by 1.6 per cent for the 2018-19 school year, 1.4 per cent for the subsequent year and 0.5 per cent — 2020's forecast inflation rate — for the current academic year.
The pay bump for 2021-22 will be based on the projected cost of living increase.
"It's important that salaries keep up with inflation," said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, which negotiated on behalf of the teachers.
"It reflects that understanding of the difficult work that teachers do in any year," he said, and in this "particularly difficult year."
The arbitration board, chaired by Arne Peltz, said they were sympathetic to the pleas of the school division, which argued it couldn't afford a pay bump.
The Progressive Conservative government has reduced provincial grants to school divisions, or provided increases below the rate of inflation, in recent years. It has also barred divisions from making up the difference by freezing property tax rates this year.
'Underfunded by government': arbitrator
"The division has been underfunded by government and barred from potentially using its own taxation authority to solve the problem," the arbitration decision read.
"Its senior administration, needed now more than ever to deal with the [COVID-19] crisis, has been hobbled by arbitrary cutbacks dictated by the ministry. Discretion to manage surplus has been constrained. None of these facts are in dispute," the ruling said.
The board noted the government has placed a high priority on expenditure restraint and taxpayer relief, which is within its rights, though that focus comes at the expense of school divisions.
But the board ruled it must rely on past teacher bargaining decisions. Louis Riel School Division is the only other division of Manitoba's 38 to complete its collective bargaining after deals expired in 2018. That southeast Winnipeg division reached a two-year deal last spring by arbitration, with annual salary increases of 1.6 per cent, followed by 1.4 per cent.
In recent years, the government's desire to freeze the wages of more than 100,000 public sector workers has hung over collective bargaining in the province.
Last summer, a Manitoba judge struck down a proposed law that would have allowed the province to legislate a two-year wage freeze for public sector workers, which the court decried as "draconian."
The government is appealing that decision, arguing it needs clarity on what governments can do to control costs.
Blaming the pandemic, the government more recently advocated for a two-year wage freeze in several collective bargaining negotiations, including those with Winnipeg School Division bus drivers, some Manitoba Hydro workers and University of Manitoba faculty.
It also sent a letter earlier this month, which was obtained by the Manitoba NDP, to Manitoba superintendents, saying they were not to engage in any bargaining unless their school division has obtained a "bargaining mandate" from the province. The Opposition party accused the government of meddling in collective bargaining.
The NDP's education critic, Nello Altomare, said the arbitration board's comments on divisions hamstrung by underfunding and cuts are further evidence the government needs to change its approach to education.
In a statement Tuesday, he called for the government to scrap its planned overhaul of the kindergarten to Grade 12 education system.
Education Minister Cliff Cullen said in his own statement Manitoba is improving an education system that was "top-heavy" under the previous NDP government.
Pembina Trails must come up with $10.1 million to cover the salary increases under the new agreement.
The division told the arbitration board earlier this month it needed to reduce programming and classroom-based supports by $6.7 million to balance its upcoming budget.
The arbitration board in the Pembina Trails case heard that the province gave the Louis Riel division an exemption allowing it to use savings from the move to remote learning to cover back pay. Louis Riel needed $5.5 million to pay its retroactive wages last summer.
"It allowed Louis Riel a partial fix," the decision said in regards to the government's actions. "Pembina Trails may need to seek a fix as well."
The financial award will cost Pembina Trails, division superintendent Ted Fransen said, but he hopes it doesn't impact the educational experience in a significant way.
"When you take into consideration that 80 to 85 per cent of the education world is salaries, there will be an impact on programming," he said, adding the division will try to defer infrastructure needs to save costs.